Sunday, 17 January 2016

Think Like a Freak Review (Stephen J. Dubner, Steven D. Levitt)


If I changed the title to “Think Outside the Box” you’d probably have a good idea of what to expect from this book - and you’d be right! 

Granted I’ve not read Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt’s other “Freak” books, Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, but I suspect they’re just more of what’s contained in Think Like a Freak. Hey, if it ain’t broke, right? 

Think Like a Freak essentially has one very broad thesis: to approach any difficult situation/problem from an unexpected angle to solve it/excel at it. It’s not a new idea. The writers relate stories to illustrate this, which I’m sure more than a few people have already heard. How David Lee Roth, the lead singer of Van Halen, ensured the venues they played at adhered to their lengthy stage setup by putting a clause in their rider for no brown M&M’s - if there were none when they got there it meant the promoter had read everything carefully; if there were it meant the crew needed to do a thorough check of the equipment to make sure nobody would be hurt at the show. 

Or the little Japanese fella who became a Coney Island hot dog eating champion by taking apart the hot dog - separating the bun, dunking it in a glass of water, breaking up the hot dog, and eating everything this way. Before that everyone used to eat them whole, limiting the amount they could competitively eat; now everyone does it the new way. 

It goes on like this with case after case being brought up of old thinking being usurped by those who came to a situation differently and changed everything. Not that I’m against this attitude in any way but it means Think Like a Freak is quite a shallow read. It has one unremarkable mantra repetitively underlined throughout. Trotting out case studies to prove the benefits of thinking like a freak or outside the box, or whatever, doesn’t make this any more valid or compelling. 

Sure, there are nuances throughout. They encourage people to think like a child, think about smaller portions of a problem rather than the problem as a whole in order to progress to a solution, saying “I don’t know” is often more useful an answer than saying either yes or no, know when to quit, humans enjoy stories and use them to understand problems so do that whenever trying to explain things (which they apply in this book). But it feels so unsubstantial and obvious - really nothing here stands out as unique or brilliant to recommend readers to pick it up. 

Maybe Dubner/Levitt were trying to parlay their Freakonomics brand into a kind of self-help methodology but it doesn’t work. Think Like a Freak has a few interesting stories but it’s all in service to a completely uninspired and smug thesis that felt like a lazy product than a book they cared about writing.

Think Like a Freak

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